Friday, May 31, 2019

The wonderful world of Giant Tubas!

[Warning - long post ahead! But if you're interested at all, it should be fun!]

Since last fall I have been consumed with researching giant tubas - mostly because my friend, Steve Dillon, let me know that he and his shop would be renovating a very famous giant tuba owned by the Harvard Band. We have been doing our best to clarify the history of that horn, but in the process, I have learned about many other oversized basses. Here is a preliminary catalog of everything I've discovered so far - presented in mostly chronological order.

1843 - Prospere's giant ophicleide

The earliest reference to, and image of, a huge bass horn showed up on page 442 of the June 24, 1843 edition of The Illustrated London News, in an article featuring French virtuoso Jean Prospere Guivier. Here's a portion of what was said below the lithograph seen here:
Let not our readers imagine that the instrument our artist has placed in the hands of M. Prospere is exaggerated in size, such being in truth about the relative proportions of himself and the gigantic ophicleide manufactured expressly for the purposes of the Birmingham Music Hall. When seen the other day by the audience at the Hanover-square Rooms slowly ascending, as it were, from out of the floor, among the gentlemen of the orchestra, considerable consternation arose, some imagining that, as steam is now made to do everything, they were about to witness a novel application of its powers to the manufacture of "sweet sounds," by means of some machine of which the funnel was the first part introduced to their notice. But when Prospere stepped forward, and, boldly grasping the brazen pillar, proved that one small mouth could bring out its mighty tones, merriment and delight took the place of surprise, and perhaps dismay.
One source puts the height of this remarkable horn at around 7 feet 4 inches, which squares with the image above. It also suggests that it may go as far back as 1833, having been built in Lyons (Clifford Bevan, The Tuba Family, 2nd edition, pp. 150-152).

How's that for a story right out of the gate for this catalog?! And we're not done with monster ophicleides just yet. Another (or the same one?) will appear 10 years later, as noted below.

1851 Saxhorn bourdon in Bb

In 1851, at the Great Exhibition, held in the magnificent Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, Adolphe Sax showcased an array of his instruments. A portion of that exhibit can be seen above, but look closely in the back, behind the three shelves, where you will see portions of two very tall, but slim, saxhorns.

The one on the left, the top of which is out of sight, is most likely the very one mentioned on page 399 of W. Newton, The London Journal of Arts, Sciences, and Manufactures, and Repertory of Patent Inventions, vol. 39 (London: 1852). Here's what it says, concerning that large case of instruments at the Great Exhibition: "Among its contents . . . was also a kind of monster ophicleide, called the Sax-horn bourdon, about ten feet high, and with forty-eight feet development of tube."

The noted height seems to favor the one on the left - although the one on the right is impressive as well! Ten years later, in Pontecoulant's Organographie: Essai Sur La Facture Instrumentale (Paris: Castel, 1861), vol. 2, p. 424, it said this about the very same instrument (in French, but here is Google's translation):
[On display was] the sax-horn-bourdon, descending to the extra B-flat, whose development is 48 feet in length, and whose height is 3 meters. This one is the giant bass. At first glance, one would think that no human lung could be sufficient for the air necessary for this gigantic instrument; yet its proportions are so well regulated, its contours so soft, the play of its pistons is so easy, that it could easily be played before the jury of the exhibition by a person who had never touched it.
So, apparently it played pretty well - and had piston valves. Is it possible that this is it?

This is a page from the January 1924 edition of Popular Mechanics, which shows a giant bass horn that was "made in Paris and brought to this country about 75 years ago," which would  be 1849 or so, and the height it about right. Granted, it doesn't seem to quite match what we see in the back of the Sax display case above, but who knows! This horn, according to the writing on the side of the page, was "owned by New Orleans Jerusalem Shriner Temple" at that time.

1853 - Jullien's monster ophicleide

I have yet to find an image of this one, but it's not impossible that it's the same giant ophicleide featured at the top of this post. Below is the information that led me to speculate this.

In the fall of 1853, the celebrated conductor and showman, Jullien, came to America. In previous years, he had given "no less than three thousand concerts, mostly monster concerts to monster audiences" in London, Paris, and other European cities. But after arriving in the states, the August 30, 1853 edition of The New York Times had this to say about it: "The event of the season has come off. The immaculate Jullien wields his baton in Castle Garden. The monster Ophicleide, the monster drums, and all the other delightful monstrosities of the monster concerts, are among us, . . ."

Clearly, "monster" seems to be the word for Jullien's spectacles!

A week later, in the September 6, 1853 edition of The Burlington Free Press, this was reported about the giant bass horn: "One of the musical stores [in NYC] has had in its window a monster ophicleide, big enough to need a steam engine to blow it, one would think, which was labeled 'to be used in Jullien's orchestra' and which will probably stay there during the season . . . One would think he had been taking lessons of Barnum almost."

Add to that the fact that Jullien featured Prospere in many of his concerts in previous years, even as recently as 1852, and I wonder: Is it possible that Jullien brought Prospere's monster ophicleide with him to America? He didn't bring Prospere himself, it seems, but what about his giant bass horn?

Regardless, whether it was on that monster bass, or a normal-sized one, it turns out that, in Jullien's concerts that year, "Short solos were also played by [S.] Hughes on the ophicleide" (The Musical World, September 17, 1853, p. 589). That I would have loved to have heard!

1855 - Saxhorn bourdon in Eb

According to scholar Eugenia Mitroulia, who has examined and written about the above instrument, "the bourdon saxhorn in 26-ft E-flat was made by Sax in 1855 for that year's Paris International Exhibition. Such an instrument survives in the Henri Selmer collection in Paris" ("Adolphe Sax's Bigger Brasses," ITEA Journal, vol. 38, no. 3 [Spring 2011]). The serial number of this subcontrabass saxhorn is 13817, and it has 3 Berlin valves, as well as its original mouthpiece.

This giant tuba is clearly more stout than the much taller saxhorn bourdon from 1851 above.

1867 - More giant tubas from Sax?

I'm not sure if these monsters actually existed - at least in the sizes they are shown in the above lithograph - but this is what we find on page 93 of the August 10, 1867 edition of Le Monde Illustre. However, the caption below the artwork reads (when translated), "International Exposition - Musical instruments exhibited by Mr. Adolphe Sax," and that seems to suggest these were giant tubas you could actually see in Paris that year.

The accompanying article, which says nothing about the huge horns but raves about Sax, concludes by saying, "With a man like that, one is never out of surprises." So, who knows?! Here they are close-up:

Yeah, that's pretty tall; I don't know. But as a Sousaphone historian, this is the one that really caught my eye:

I wonder what that sucker weighed?! Can you imagine carrying it around?!

Now, we know that Sax made bass horns like this shoulder-born version, as can be seen below in a page from a catalog published for the 1862 London International Exhibition. But note how it rests on the right shoulder above, rather than the left, which was typical for a helicon (and, later, a Sousaphone). Was this Sax's take on the helicon bass - with his own little twist of switching shoulders?!

I did reach out to Dr. Mitroulia, mentioned above, as she is an expert on these matters, and she responded, "I don't know if the large saxtuba [depicted in the Sax exhibit above] had ever been made, but my guess is that it is very possible since it appears in the lithograph. Only two saxtubas have survived to the present day [and they are neither of the two above] . . . my guess is that if it was ever made, it was made for being shown in exhibitions so as to attract publicity" (email exchange from May 2016). Indeed - they would have attracted my attention!

1889 - "La Prodigieuse" by F. Besson

I don't (yet!) have an image of this giant tuba in Paris, but here is the description found on page 207 of the June 1889 edition of The British Bandsman, in an article titled, "Music at the Paris Exposition":

Similarly, in the July 28, 1889 edition of Reynolds's Newspaper, page 3, a brief article with the exact same title reveals that, "A never-failing source of interest is the gigantic double B B flat monster 'Prototype' Besson Bombardon, named 'La Prodigieuse,' from the bell of which spurts out the whole family of brass instruments."

"La Prodigieuse," it should be noted, is French for "The Prodigious [One]," and, at a supposed height of 14 feet, the name fits. It must have been quite the spectacle at the Paris Exposition.

However, and quite curiously, by 1891, this enormous tuba was on display on the other side of the Atlantic, in New York City, as reported by the February 8, 1891 edition of the short-lived tabloid The Daily Continent (with the story being picked up by other newspapers around the country):

This is clearly not a serious piece of journalism, but the basic facts remain the same - esp. regarding the 14 foot height of the horn. But we're wondering, is it possible that the entire display was that tall, while the giant tuba atop the display was somewhat shorter? Because next in line is this wonderful oversized bass, which might possibly be "La Prodigieuse."

UPDATE (July 2, 2019): I now have confirmation that "La Prodigieuse" is indeed the following giant tuba. More to come on that discovery in The Brass Herald later this year!

1889 - The Harvard tuba by F. Besson

While the bell of this giant tuba at present clearly says "Besson & Co. London," the second valve is stamped "F. Besson," which suggests a Paris origin. Further, the tuba in the lithograph appears to show "BESSON 1889" on the bell, which was either added by the artist - perhaps to connect the horn to that year - or represents the original engraving. We're just not sure, although our visual inspection favors the former suggestion.

The lithograph, by the way, is of "Gilmore's One Hundred," which dates it at either 1891 or 1892, which are the years (after 1889) that Gilmore formed a special band of that size. So we know that that huge horn was in NYC for one or both of those years.

Further, we know that this tuba was featured in the street-level windows of the Carl Fischer store in NYC in the early 20th century (and perhaps the tail end of the 19th; see this post).

Compare all of that to what we know about "La Prodigieuse" above, and it does make us wonder: Are these the same horns? Stay tuned, as a separate article is in the works! For now, here's a photo of Sam Pilafian playing this beast back in 1979. And you can listen to it here.

[Click here for more on this giant tuba.]

Early 1900s? - the Horniman Besson

We'll take this one out of chronological order, as it looks very similar to the Harvard tuba, and it is also connected to Besson. However, the two horns are not "twins," as some have suggested. Most notably, the Harvard tuba is fully functional, while the Horniman horn was not meant to be played.

We don't have a certain date for its construction, but the prevailing opinion is that this horn was built perhaps 10 or more years after the Harvard tuba. Here's what Margaret Birley, the Keeper of Musical Instruments at the Horniman Museum in London, shared with me recently:
The giant tuba, now in the collection of the Horniman Museum and Gardens, was a London music business landmark for much of the 20th century. It was originally fitted to the wall of the Besson & Co. factory in 198 Euston Road as a shop sign. Boosey & Hawkes purchased Besson and moved production of Besson instruments to the Boosey & Hawkes factory in Edgware in 1948. The tuba was installed on the roof of the porch at Sonorous Works and presided over the factory until its removal in the late 1990s. The design and layout of the tuba follows the design of standard basses of the early 20th century and is an enlarged version of these. The three piston valves are dummies and do not function. The tuba was restored by Norman's Music, sales agents for Boosey & Hawkes, circa 2000.
According to the museum's website, this giant tuba is 78 inches tall (6 feet 5 inches) weighs 112 pounds, and is said to be pitched in BBBb (but again, the valves are dummies).

1893 - Pepper's large helicon

While clearly smaller than all of the tubas in our list so far, this helicon, as you can see above, was hailed as "The Largest Practical Tuba in the World" at that time. That might have been empty boasting, but the Musical Courier of May 3, 1893 also made that claim: "The largest brass musical instrument ever made has just been sent to Chicago to equip a 6 1/2 foot Swede. It is a circular double B flat bass; only more so. The mouth of the bell is 2 feet wide. This instrument was made in Manchester, England."

I assume we're talking about the same helicon here, but notice that the Pepper feature claims it was made by Pepper, whereas the Musical Courier notice suggests it was only imported by Pepper.

Interestingly, while the Pepper feature says that this horn was used in Sousa's Band at Manhattan Beach, we know that the great bandmaster did not like helicons for concert purposes, so it's not surprising that I have found nothing else said about this tuba with that premier ensemble.

But I did come across this notice of its availability for purchase in 1899 - and for a mere $200, including the case!

[Side note: It's not impossible that the body of this helicon was the pattern for the original Sousaphone, built by J. W. Pepper in 1895.]

1897 - Brooke's big bass by Conn

Here's what the newspapers reported about this oversized Bb tuba. From the February 7, 1897 edition of the Logansport Pharos-Tribune:

The Chicago Marine Band was led by P. T. Brooke, and the September 29, 1897 edition of the Pittsburgh Daily Post added this about who designed the horn:

Finally, the October 7, 1897 edition of The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer revealed a bit more - this time about who played this giant tuba:

Did you catch that last line? Seavey had "become so proficient on the instrument as to be able to perform some of the most difficult solos." In fact, according to the July 1897 edition of C. G. Conn's Truth, "This horn is usually given a solo during the concert, and Mr. Brooke, knowing what the effect will be, always has it come on the stage the last thing before commencing the concert, and it is invariably received with applause."

That same article goes on to share some of the challenges of travelling with such a big horn: "We have had a terrible time of it, trying to get it over the tour without getting it smashed."

[NOTE: The image of the tuba above was graciously provided by the Conn Company Archive, National Music Museum, University of South Dakota, Vermillion. Peggy Banks, Associate Director, Senior Curator.]

1897 - Innes' huge helicon by Conn

Now things are getting interesting! Two years prior to this, in 1895, J. W. Pepper made the very first Sousaphone for Sousa's Band. Then, if I've got the chronology right, C. G. Conn built a giant tuba designed by P. T. Brooke for his Chicago Marine Band in early 1897 (noted in the previous entry). But by the summer of that year, Frederick Innes also featured a giant tuba built by Conn in his band, although this time it was a huge helicon, as seen above.

Here's what the July 18, 1897 edition of The Tennessean reported about this marvel, which is worth reading in full:

We know that this huge horn existed at least a month or more prior to this report, but just how long it was featured in Innes' Band is unknown. But here is one image of the band from 1897, and there's the giant tuba, right smack in the middle:

So, did Brooke and Innes know about each other's dealings with Conn to make them each their own giant tuba? If not, how much fun must that have been for Conn?! And it should be noted that less than a year later, Conn also built a Sousaphone for Sousa which replaced the Sousaphone built by J. W. Pepper. I wonder - did the big horns built for Brooke and Innes stir up Conn's interest in creating a better Sousaphone for Sousa?

One last note before moving on. In H. W. Schwartz's wonderful 1957 book, Bands of America, he recounts the story of Brooke's and Innes' competition for having the largest tuba ever made. And, along the way, he mentions that Arthur A. Clappe, in his journal, The Dominant, reported on Innes' huge helicon, which was supposedly 1 inch larger in bell diameter than Brooke's giant tuba. Here's what Schwartz wrote about Clappe's report (I've tried to find the original source, but have had no luck yet):
Clappe gave the relatively prosaic but accurate specifications of the tuba as weighing sixty-three pounds and as having three piston valves and a bell thirty-three inches in diameter. Its range was the same as any other tuba of the time, going down to the Bb which was in the third octave below middle C. Its principal distinction was its wide bore and sonorous tone quality [p. 183].

1899 - Sander subcontrabass in C

There are actually two versions of this giant tuba - both of which exist today, and both similar in their size and layout, but with different valve clusters, and both apparently made from copper with brass or nickel trim.

The one above, with three slanted rotary valves, and which currently resides in a private collection, is often referred to as the Hoffnung tuba, as it was made somewhat famous by the antics of Gerard Hoffnung in the 1950s. Here is the sleeve of one of his 45 rpm records from that time period (and that's him and his wife in the above left photo):

The other version of this tuba is the one below, which is similar in size and, uhm, squaty-ness, but now with four vertically-aligned rotary valves. It currently resides in the Musikantenland-Museum Burg Lichtenberg, Germany:

I'm told that this is Rudolph Sander in the above left photo. But I also came across a Facebook post, by Uwe Schneider, showing this particular photo, and stating that "The tuba that was shown here was bad, so she stayed in Germany in the workshop. This is not a single item (105 cm diameter, 155 cm high)." Did you catch that? There were apparently two of these, and at least one didn't play well.

In a 1912 article on giant tubas (W. Altenburg, "Der Neue Riesenbass (Subkontrabass-Tuba)," Zeitschrift fur Instrumentenbau 32, No. 34, pp. 1285-1288), we learn that "Rudolph Sander claims that from his subcontrabass in C, executed on American order in 1899, a sonorous contra-C was required, and that the instrument had been successfully tested by the tuba player of the Frankfurt Opera; Total pipes 15 m long, height is 1.55 m, bell diameter is 1.05 m" (Google translation from the German, and probably where Uwe got some of his information). Which of the two horns above this is referring to is not known, but it may be the first version.

After all, what we learn here (again, from way back in 1912) is that this giant tuba was supposedly requested by an American in 1899, and this seems to square with a photo of, and short but humorous article on, the first version above, featured in the August 1910 edition of Technical World Magazine (p. 732):

[Side note: A reliable source confirmed with me that, in the early part of the 20th century, W. W. Jones did indeed own a music store at 929 W. 7th St., Los Angeles, CA.]

So, piecing everything together that we now know, it could be that the prototype of this plump Sander subcontrabass tuba (version two above), simply didn't cut it, so a second was built and finally shipped to the customer in America (version one above - the so-called Hoffnung tuba).

Later sources that I came across love to mention the connection of this horn with Sousa, but I have yet to find any confirming evidence for that - beyond what was just said in the brief article from 1910.

The current owner of version one shared with me that "After Hoffnung played it, it was in the basement at Paxman. They remodeled, and then couldn't get it out of the basement, so they cut the bell, which is why it is now detachable, and was not previously." So that explains that noticeable detail. He also stated that, early on,
[The] owner was a real estate person on the West Coast. I think that would have predated it going back to the UK for Hoffnung. When I first saw its picture [in the] 63/64 Life Magazine, it was owned by Ron Snyder, a London-based bass trombonist, . . . At some point it went with him to South Africa, and then made it back to the UK. Before I got it in 2001 it was owned by the County Coroner in Casper, Wyoming, who saw the same picture in Life Magazine that I did, but hunted it down, and got it in the late 70's.
Now that's a horn with quite a history! And we probably only know the half of it!

1901 - Distin's monstrous double bass

In the March 11, 1901 edition of the Argus-Leader of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, we learn of another giant tuba - and don't miss the hilarious final paragraph!:

In checking the online archives of the Repasz Band, I came across this photograph of the ensemble from 1903, and the helicon on the left may very well be the "wonderful instrument" mentioned in the article:

Here's a close-up of it:

Granted, it's not much bigger than a standard large helicon of the day (note the one on the right in the band photo), but it rivals Pepper's huge helicon from 1893 above.

However, did you notice that the first part of that last paragraph in the article reveals yet another giant tuba? "So far as known, the only bass horn larger than the one played by Byers was made by Henry Distin for the exhibition at the Paris Exposition." But which year is that referring to? The previous year of 1900? Or the year before that, 1889? Distin would have been 80 and 81 those years, having retired almost 10 years earlier (and he died in 1903).

The Paris Exposition prior to those years was way back in 1867, and, interestingly, the April 1889 edition of The British Bandsman states that "In 1867, at the World's Exposition in Paris, Henry Distin was awarded the prize medal over all his English competitors for the perfection of his instruments."

Did Distin perhaps build and bring a huge tuba with him at that time - one that would have rivaled Sax's giant horns (see above, under 1867)? My curiosity has been piqued, and the search is on!

1912 - "Big Carl" by Bohland & Fuchs

From that same 1912 article on giant tubas by W. Atlenburg (mentioned above under "1899 - Sander subcontrabass in C") we read the following (again, translated from the original German):
The number of the previously mentioned giant tubas [referring to a subcontrabass saxhorn, and the 1899 Sander] got increased in recent times . . . by two giant tubas in B flat with three piston valves, whose fabrication was ordered for a business with branches in New York and Chicago from the "Imperial & Royal Privileged Music Instrument Manufacturer Bohland & Fuchs" in Graslice (Bohemia). It can be assumed that there will be a third delivery for the same customer. The gigantic dimensions of an ultimate sub contra bass tuba were without any doubt achieved in both these instruments, which the reader can easily see on the attached detailed image [the image on the left above].
That horn is clearly what we now know as "Big Carl," which resides at the corporate headquarters of Carl Fischer Music in NYC (seen on the right above), being the very business that ordered this beast - presumably in 1912, or shortly before that year. Although, it should be noted, as the article actually states earlier, that Besson "delivered a sub contra bass tuba to Carl Fischer at Cooper Square in New York" in a prior year (a date which, unfortunately, is not stated). But that is what we now call the Harvard tuba, which apparently goes all the way back to 1889, as I shared above.

Altenburg, in his article, goes on with a bit more of the story of "Big Carl":
The concept to use such a monster instrument and eye catcher solely as an exhibit and advertisement within a business building is typical American, of course. The "Music Trades" magazine reproduced a not very good photograph from the "New York World" and report the following [now in English in the article]: "Biggest Horn in the World. Built abroad for advertising purposes (!!) by a well-known New York House. Its tremendous notes will never be heard, for there is not a man in existence with a mouth big enough or lungs of sufficient capacity to blow it. But that does not matter, as it was made as an advertisement for a firm of musical instrument manufacturers that has a house in Fourth avenue [again, clearly Carl Fischer]. - Its hight [sic] is 9 1/2 feet, its bell is 3 feet across, and its mouthpiece is 5 inches in diameter. Other parts are in proportion."
I couldn't locate the New York World feature, but it was picked up by many other newspapers, including the March 16, 1912 edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer:

Two things about this feature add more to the story (from the fine print above). First, it says that the New York firm that ordered the horn (again, Carl Fischer) was already known as "the House of the Monster Bass." That is almost certainly because of the many years the Harvard tuba had already been displayed in its main windows. This new giant tuba, as far as we can tell, took over that perch, while the Harvard tuba ended up at Carl Fischer's Boston store, and eventually found its way to Harvard (hence, it's current name; again, an article all about this historic horn in the works!).

Second, you gotta love the humor at the end (not included in the German article): "It would require a man with a mouth like a young hippopotamus and lungs like a whale to play this trumpet, and the sound would be like that of the siren of a transatlantic steamer starting down the bay in a fog." Told you this would be fun!

Matt Walters, the famed tuba-whisperer at Dillon Music, thoroughly examined "Big Carl" a few years back, and revealed that it is essentially a huge bugle. That is, the valves do not work - or even exist - and the slides are non-functional. He also stated that the height is actually just 7 feet 9 inches (93 inches), and the bell diameter is just over 40 inches. He didn't mention the weight, but elsewhere it is said to be anywhere from 100 to 140 pounds.

"Big Carl," indeed! For a New York Times video, where you actually hear it played, click here.

1912 - Big Carl's twin brother!

As noted above, in Altenburg's 1912 article, Carl Fischer ordered two giant tubas from Bohland & Fuchs at that time - one for his New York store, and the other for his Chicago store. But the earliest reference to that second monster that I am aware of is from 1936, when it was in the hands of C. G. Conn, Ltd:

It is a dead-ringer for "Big Carl," and the brief article above states that it was "built for exhibition purposes but playable." Presumably, just like "Big Carl," its valves were dummies.

We get a clearer photo of this giant tuba in 1942, as it was about to be scrapped as part of the war effort:

This photo, from the October 1942 edition of The Ameri-Conn, is accompanied by the following story:

Below is that "small picture" that appeared in the article. As you can see, Al was successful in bludgeoning this historic horn, which then went on to become machine guns, shells, and gas masks:

[NOTE: All images above were graciously provided by the Conn Company Archive, National Music Museum, University of South Dakota, Vermillion. Peggy Banks, Associate Director, Senior Curator.]

Notice of the death (murder?!) of this beast appeared in newspapers shortly thereafter, including this one in the October 6, 1942 edition of the Journal & Courier of Lafayette, Indiana:

1912? - Rotary Bohland & Fuchs

As it turns out, there is a third Bohland & Fuchs giant tuba, and it is said to have been built around the same time. But while it is very similar in size to "Big Carl" and his twin, it has four rotary valves instead of three (phony) piston valves:

The earliest reference to this specific horn that I have been able to find is from the August 25, 1928 edition of The Music Trade Review, which describes it as "the largest brass bass horn ever made in the world. The instrument is a sub-contra B-Bb, four rotary valves, the bell is fifty inches in diameter, the height 110 inches, weight 200 pounds, and built in low pitch" (p. 16).

It hit the big time when it appeared on page 220 of the 1976 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records. But carefully read the blurb below the photos:

While it's not impossible that the horn was built for Sousa, there is simply no evidence to support this claim. And besides, Sousa's world tour occurred in 1911, not "in c. 1896-98." And could it be that the "circus promoter in South Africa" was actually Ron Snyder, who for a time lived in South Africa and owned the 1899 Sander subcontrabass in C (see above)? Did these giant tubas get mixed up by the folks at Guinness?

Newspapers in 1977-78 picked up on this giant tuba (perhaps because of its appearance in Guinness), and clarified that it resided (at that time) at the Museum of Musical Instruments in Kraslice, Czechoslovakia, and claimed that it weighed 176 pounds, stood just under 8 feet tall, and had a bell diameter of 43 inches. And they said it was named, "Riesen-Kontrabass in B."

Currently, the horn is being stored at the Amati-Denak factory in Kraslice, Czech Republic, and when I reached out to them (using Google Translate), they clarified the following:
  • Key: Bb (not F, as some have claimed)
  • Height: 8 feet (244 cm)
  • Weight: 125 pounds (57 kg)
  • Bell diameter: 45 inches (114 cm)
They also shared that they possess the following information about its history (kindly responding in English):
Giant-Bass, how it is called, was manufactured in now no more existing company Bohland and Fuchs from 1910-11, for purposes of World Exhibition in New York in 1913. Tuba was built for presentation purposes only, but its measurements are proportionally corresponding to normal-size-tuba, which makes this instrument playable. It's officially entered in Guinness Book of Records as the biggest ever playable tuba in the world.
The Guinness reference probably refers to the 1976 edition, noted above, as the current Guinness website says nothing about this horn - or any giant tuba. More curious is the fact that the only international exhibition in New York in 1913 was one for modern art (sometimes called the Armory Show), so they may have some bum information about why the instrument was built. But here's what they went on to say:
Factory Bohland and Fuchs was founded in 1850 in Kraslice and at the time it was the biggest company in the world producing wind brass instruments. Tuba was traveling not just to New York for World Exhibition in 1913, but on many more occasions in the past as well. One of many interesting journeys was for example to birthday party of at the time General Secretary of Communist part of East Germany, Erich Honecker.
I looked for a photo of Erich with this beast of a tuba, but have found nothing - so far! But to see this horn on display back in 2010, with a few less-than-satisfying attempts at playing it, check out this video.

1924 - Conn's 50th Anniv. Sousaphone

This horn (the one on the right, of course!), like Pepper's large helicon from 1893 above, is only slightly larger than typical instruments of its kind, but Conn referred to it as the "World's Largest Playable Sousaphone" when it was built. This announcement was made in the Holiday 1924 edition of C. G. Conn's Musical Truth (vol. 14, no. 36). Here's what it went on to say:
As a fitting emblem of its progress during the fifty years since its founding, C. G. Conn, Ltd., has just completed the construction of the world's largest playable Sousaphone . . . This remarkable instrument is finished completely in burnished gold, with oxidized silver and other precious metals used to bring out the details of the highly ornate engraving which entirely covers the bell, inside and out. This engraving alone required more than three solid weeks. The bell itself is 10 feet 2 1/2 inches in circumference [so about 40 inches in diameter], and the instrument weighs nearly fifty pounds. Were this monster Sousaphone to be listed for sale the price would be in the neighborhood of $3,000.00.
This beautiful - and fully functional - instrument resides in the Greenleaf Collection at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Interlochen, Michigan. It was recently on display at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona (photo below), but, strangely, the accompanying information stand said that it "was featured at the Chicago World's Fair." But that Fair occurred in 1893 - over thirty years before this horn was built!

If you've got 30 minutes to kill, you can see this oversized Sousaphone at Interlochen in this video. For a close-up of the bell engraving, which really is spectacular, check out this shorter video.

1927 - H. N. White's "Giraffe"

This is not so much a giant tuba as a ridiculously tall regular tuba. But, hey, I couldn't leave it off the list! The April 16, 1927 edition of The Music Trade Review dubbed it the "Giraffe of Tubas," and called it the "largest tuba in captivity." Here's what the report went on to say:
When Joseph Tarte [sic], of the Vincent Lopez Orchestra, thought recently that he wanted a new type of tuba for use in his orchestra work be brought his idea to the H. N. White Co. manufacturer of the King line of band instruments. He outlined his wants to the manufacturing executives at the King plant, and they oiled up the machinery and got busy with the results as shown in the accompanying photograph of the "Giraffe of Tubas." Mr. Tarte's tuba is making a great sensation wherever Vincent Lopez and his orchestra appear. It is said to be the tallest tuba ever made.
I recently spoke with the current owner of this stretch-tuba. His name is Brian Nalepka, and he confirmed that it is a standard Bb tuba, which weighs 25 pounds and has a bell diameter of 22 inches, but stands a towering 7 feet, 3 inches tall! His understanding is that H. N. White ended up building seven of these horns, but this is the original.

And why was it built? Brian, who was good friends with Joe Tarto [note correct spelling], shared with me that Joe simply wanted to be able to go back and forth between the string bass and tuba in the orchestra pit when playing for shows. It makes perfect sense!

According to Brian, the only drawback with this "Giraffe" is that when you play it in the sitting position (did you notice the two options for the lead pipe?), "you have to get used to the sound of the horn coming from so far away from you!"

2010 - Markneukirchen Riesentuba

Here is, by far, the most recent entry into the giant tuba hall of fame. Completed only nine years ago, this fully functional horn resides in the Musical Instruments Museum of Markneukirchen, Germany, where a number of other oversized instruments live, as you can see:

Hailed as "The world's largest playable tuba," it is said to be 2.05 meters high (just under 6 feet 9 inches) weighs about 50 kilograms (around 110 pounds) and has a bell diameter of 0.88 meters (about 34.5 inches). However, by comparison, "Big Carl," from 1912 above, stands a foot taller, at 7 feet 9 inches, although it is not fully functional, and the Rotary Bohland & Fuchs, also from 1912 above, is said to be just a bit taller than that, or just under 8 feet tall, and seems to be playable (although I have yet to come across anyone proving that).

The tubist playing the Markneukirchen Riesentuba in the photo above, Prof. Jorg Wachsmuth of the Dresden Philharmonic, wrote in 2012 that "In today's Kraslice (Czech Republic), a tuba was created about 100 years ago, which is still 40 centimeters higher than the current specimen. However, it cannot be played, and the proportions of a 'real' tuba are not right."

I'm not sure if he checked this out himself, or if he is just defending his giant baby!

Interestingly, the Harvard tuba, from 1889 above, may actually be able to steal the title of "world's largest playable tuba," once the current renovation job is completed. More on that soon!

The earliest and most complete report I found on the Riesentuba is from October 1, 2010, at the forum for the Museum, and said this (translated from the German):
The 2:1 tuba will be presented in Klingenthal in the Vogtland Arena at the finale of the Summer Grand Prix Jumping. During the parade on the occasion of the 650th anniversary of the town of Markneukirchen, the tuba on the festival car of the Museum of Musical Instruments was already present, but not quite finished yet. The idea for this tuba came from Klingenthaler Hartmut Geilert many years ago, together with his son, Michael. Over a year ago, at the suggestion of Mario Weller, member of the Association of Friends and Sponsors of the Musikinstrumenten-Museum Markneukirchen, he decided to finish building this huge instrument. Some work started about 12 years ago, but without further help, completion was a long way off. Mario Weller, also a master in the brass instrument business, informed the club about the project, because it was clear that only as a club would helpers and sponsors be won. Weller was also the one who held the strings when it came to finding people who were willing to invest time, money and expertise in this project. So far, 20 companies and 12 private individuals, many of them members of the Museum Association, have been involved in the construction of the giant tuba and have advanced the project. The official handover to the Musikinstrumenten-Museum Markneukirchen, to which all sponsors will be invited, will take place on 4 December 2010 at the Gerber-Hans-Haus.
A report from 2012 stated that 21 companies and 15 individuals ended up being involved in the project.

To hear Prof. Wachsmuth perform "The Flight of the Bumblebee" on this giant on May 15, 2012, see this video. Personally, I would have preferred hearing some big, fat low notes!

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Okay, what giant tubas am I missing? Let me know! 

[And, yes, I am aware that a few other candidates are mentioned in Table 7.1 on page 279 of Clifford Bevan, The Tuba Family (2nd edition), but I have been unable to find any mention of those outside of his book. They are, he claims, an 1855 Besson, an 1862 Distin, and an 1873 Cerveny.]


  1. This is a really interesting and well researched article. Thank you. I would like to mention though that the player mentioned in the H.N. White "Giraffe tuba" article was Joe Tarto, and not Joe "Tarte." That misspelling would appear to come from a typo in the vintage newspaper clipping. Mr. Tarto (1902-1986) was a well respected figure in New York professional music circles, and still active when I was free-lancing there in the 1980s. Thanks again and keep up te great work.